Perhaps the most poignant of all Paul’s letters was the final one, 2 Timothy — written from his last Roman imprisonment, and obviously not long before his death (cf. 4:6). This document contains the concluding written words of Paul. They are words of instruction and admonition for his young friend, his “true child in faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). The message also contains an appeal to Timothy to “come” to the apostle’s side as soon as possible (4:9). In addition, the letter reveals something of the “soul” of the noble apostle.
There is a passage near the conclusion of this letter that has long intrigued me. “At my first defense no one took my part, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their account” (4:16). What are the circumstances behind this puzzling statement? Is it possible that we may entertain the wish that some, who have not treated us as well as they should have, might nonetheless be recipients of Heaven’s mercy?
First, there is the matter of the historical context. What is meant by “my first defense”? That is by no means a fully settled question. While a few have argued that the phrase alludes to the apostle’s earlier two-year confinement in Rome (Acts 28), most scholars are persuaded that the reference is to a preliminary trial in connection with Paul’s present imprisonment.
In A.D. 64, a week-long fire had engulfed the Imperial city. The emperor Nero was rumored to have set the blaze to cover his own ineptness as an administrator. He maliciously blamed Christians for the catastrophe, and Christianity became an “illicit religion.” Paul’s arrest is believed to have taken place a couple of years following these events.
It appears the apostle had been brought to trial initially, but was cleared of a preliminary charge. It is likely, however, that another allegation was pending, and Paul was waiting for a second trial phase — from which he expected no deliverance. His looming fate seems fairly certain in his mind (4:6).
Second, it is clear that when this valiant brother was brought before the authorities in the initial segment of his trial procedure, no one — available and in a position to do so — was willing to stand with him. It may be that he had sent forth an appeal to brethren for character witnesses, but, for fear of their lives, many had “turned away” from him (cf. 1:15; 4:16).
Where were those of the Roman church who had traveled out so joyously to meet the apostle when he first approached the seven-hill city (Acts 28:13-15)? Had many of these been martyred already? Certainly no assistance could be expected from the “anti-Paul” faction in Rome (cf. Phil. 1:15ff).
Third, the most amazing thing about this circumstance is Paul’s attitude with reference to those who “forsook” him. He wrote: “. . . may it not be laid to their account.” Clearly, he is referring to a final settlement at the Judgment (cf. 1:16-18).
Amidst the mystery of this passage, a few facts seem plain.
- Paul was not making a petition on behalf of the dead. Following death, there is no opportunity for one’s “account” to be altered.
- It is not feasible to suggest that Paul was petitioning God to ignore a willful, arrogant disdain of divine law, pursued with no inclination of repentance. (The verb is in the optative mood; it does involve a wish, a request.) Such a view would disregard other passages of emphatic import (Lk. 17:3; Acts 8:22; 1 Jn. 5:16). Within this same context the apostle refers to one Alexander, of whom he says, he “did me much evil . . . for he greatly withstood our words” (vv. 14-15). It seems rather apparent that this Alexander, whoever he was, did harm to Paul in connection with opposition to the gospel. And the apostle thus says: “the Lord will render to him according to his works.” [The King James rendition, which makes this a wish, does not have the best textual support.] There was no petition for mercy on behalf of such a one.
- It seems that Paul considered the neglect in this instance as one of human weakness, rather than overt rebellion. Fear can cause one to panic under extreme conditions, and perhaps do that (or fail to do that) which might not be the case under less stressful circumstances. It does appear that in this situation, the apostle sees the possibility that God will understand the human element (see Psa. 103:13-14), and extend grace to those who have not been as valiant as they could have been ideally. This text, therefore, may not only be a commentary upon the forgiving spirit of Paul, it may also underscore the mercy of the One who knows the true character of our hearts.
May God help us to do our best to always be faithful and courageous. In addition, however, may we sustain our trust in him, being assured that he will do what is right in the case of every person (Gen. 18:25).